Napoleon Chagnon and his *Noble Savages*

I started reading Napoleon Chagnon’s Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes — the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists.  The first fifty pages are excellent fun and well-constructed, though I cannot speak to the details of his claims about the frequency of conflict or the motivation of conflict by sexual competition for women.  At some point, however, I realized I don’t want to read an entire book on either tribe, at least not at this moment.  I am not suggesting that the book gets worse, but my interest did ebb.

I do not have a view about the controversies surrounding Chagnon, and ultimately that is what should decide the merits of this work.  Here is Dreger’s systematic defense of Chagnon.  Here is a survey of the Chagnon disputes.  I wonder if he has ended up with less credibility from having the first name “Napoleon”?


Is there actually a controversy that male violence is mainly about sexual competition for women? It seems obvious that male humans are extravagantly violent for the same reason peacocks have long tails.

Right, here's Nicholas Wade's review in the NY Times of Chagnon's memoir, plus, as illustration of the theme of men fighting over women, Poussin's "Rape of the Sabine Women" and a local police blotter report of a man getting his eyebrow bitten off in a fight outside a nightclub. From highbrow to eyebrow:

So, my understanding was that Chagnon portrayed the Yanamamo as this very violent warlike culture in hiw 1968 book Yanomamö: The Fierce People .

This being the late 60s and going on into the 70s, that set off all sorts of PC alarm bells in the anthropological community.
Everyone knows it'a verboten to portray indigenous people as violent savages. You're suppose to portray them as innocent earth children living in harmony with nature. And of course the violent native thing just sounds icky and racist.

Hence the controversy. Since there there have been people out there trying to discredit his research, sometimes using fairly sloppy research of their own.
I don't really have a dog in this fight, but I'm struck by ome parallels with the discussion of Jared Diamond's works. That is, the sort of knee-jerk response to anything that might indirectly support past racist narratives kind of indirectly discredits the critics of such works, since one immediately gets the impression they rae more interested in managing narratives and perceptions than they are in scientific truth.

I agree - only modest interest in the book, but the fights about it - especially on Savage Minds and other anthro-professional blogs is worth a bowl of popcorn and an afternoon.

Dirk - if you were a "professional" anthropologist, you'd understand that all violence comes from white, male, hetero, republican power structures. There is no violence without this group - and if you see a non-just, non-equal society, it is probably due to Bush or Reagan, or the Britsh Empire. Move along...

Well, in all fairness to Dirk... it's hard to remember when we're supposed to believe that men are violent sex-obsessed rapists, and when we're supposed to believe that women want sex just as much as men and that female docility/non-violence is just another product of patriarchal oppression.

We thankfully have cultural anthropologists to help us out--it's such an injustice that society doesn't compensate them for this service with six-figure salaries for getting their BAs and PhDs.

Finish reading the book. It's dynamite.

Dear Tyler,
I strongly recommend "Secrets of the Tribe" (2010) a documentary on Yanomani and Anthropologists.
Surprisingly it is available on Vimeo:


I grew up among French Canadians in New Hampshire. "Napoleon" was not exactly a common name, but it wouldn't have raised eyebrows. Cf. Nappy Lajoie, Napoleon Harris, Napoleon Kaufman, Napoleon McCallum.

Chagnon sounds like a prickly sort, which hasn't helped his cause in the anthropology wars, but he will go down as an important part of the dismantling of the facile "all is social construct" worldview and "noble savage" idealists that held sway in the social sciences for most of the 20th century:

“The real Indians get dirty, smell bad, use drugs, belch after they eat, covet and sometimes steal each other’s women, fornicate and make war. They are normal human beings. This is reason enough for them to deserve care and attention.”

I've never heard of Napoleon McCallum, but I take it his parents were great fans of "The Man from U.N.C.L.E."

Ha Ha - now that was a good one - at least one coot reading this blog appreciated it

The interesting controversy is whether the Yanomamo represent primitive humanity or debased humanity -- as suggested by Charles C. Mann in his NYT review of the book. Are they a tribe frozen in time, or the degenerate remnants of the civilized millions who once occupied the Amazon basin in pre-Columbian times?

The Yanomamo don't represent anything, they are what they are. Words like primitive and debased are value loaded and don't really help you understand other cultures.

What part of "nasty, brutish, and short" doesn't the "anthropological community" understand? Or do they actually think Rousseau isn't full of it?

The premise of much contemporary Anthropology, which like a lot of Marxism has its origin in Rousseau, is that the "chains" of oppressive modernity (read: capitalism), as well as the fetters of biology, can indeed be cast off ... by revolutionary means, if necessary.

I think the name "Napoleon" should increase rather than lessen the credibility that people ascribe to him. Such an idiotic handle has put him in constant jeopardy throughout his life of being rejected for the name alone. Yet he has succeeded in his chosen field despite it.

Well, assuming you don't believe the Freakonomics chapter that claims to prove that really crazy names are no handicap.

Peacock's tails in everything.

I still believe in Noble Savages. They were way better off than us on average, despite the violence. There is no escaping violence. Old age is violence. People say nasty, brutish and short like that's a bad thing. Does nobody remember rock-n-roll?

Who is "they" and who is "us"?

The introduction of agriculture was associated with a stark drop in the quality of life, as measured by skeletal height, for instance (although whether this actually represented a decrease of quality of life among an in situ population, or whether this represented population replacement, is a matter of dispute. Pots or people, ad infinitum).

Agriculture in and of itself did not break humanity from the Malthusian trap; in fact, it seemed to have made the situation worse, at least at first.

But I would hardly say modern hunter-gatherers are better off than us agricultural city folk, at least in Westernized cities.

In having read a number of the reviews of Chagnon's memoir and a bit about the controversy, I have yet to see anyone ask, "violent compared to whom?" It's not as if the Yanomamo are the only tribe in the region. Is he comparing them to the tribe next door or to the professor down the hall?

Has anyone else seen such a comparison? If not, perhaps the controversy is just the result of a poorly argued point.

Reason and kindness rule the world. Violence is the lack of reason and kindness. Mostly practiced by barbarians and people in Chicago.

Well, so, I started reading this here book but then I stopped because, for no particular reason, I lost interest.

This is newsworthy?

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